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Less than a month from Rapid City's mayoral election, the gloves are off.

Mayor Sam Kooiker and challenger Mark Kirkeby took verbal swings at each other Thursday night in a debate hosted by the Journal at the University Center in Rapid City.

Before a crowd of 150 people, Kooiker and Kirkeby parried over their respective management styles, allegedly racist remarks made by council member Bill Clayton and a $150 million proposal to expand the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

In an opening hit, Kirkeby, a South Dakota state senator from Rapid City, pledged to offer more stable leadership than Kooiker — referring to controversial recent headlines about council infighting and micro-management. 

"It certainly is not a one-man show," he said.

Kooiker responded that people shouldn't confuse disagreement with "not getting along."

"We have a very strong-willed, strong-minded set of 10 people who are on the City Council," he said. "They are strong-willed, strong-minded individually and strong-willed, strong-minded collectively."

Some of the most pointed criticism of the night followed a question about how each candidate would smooth over racial tensions in Rapid City.

Kirkeby, taking the question to refer to a recent controversy surrounding allegedly racist remarks council member Bill Clayton made to a black television reporter, said Kooiker should have asked Clayton to apologize.

"I think that's what a leader does," he said. "You immediately address an issue."

Kooiker deflected by saying he had limited control over Clayton's behavior. "What can anyone, mayor or otherwise, do to control the speech of another human being in a free society?" he asked.

Kirkeby again took the offensive on the topic of a proposal brought forward last year to expand the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center for $150 million.

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Kirkeby calls the project too expensive and wants limited improvements. He calls the proposal the "$150 million question" and charges that Kooiker spent months working on the project without the involvement of the full council.

"The fact of the matter is my opponent continues to campaign on transparency and open government, that '$150 million question' was actually reached behind closed doors," he said.

Kooiker didn't comment on those accusations or offer his support on the $150 million proposal. He said he supported bringing the building into compliance with federal regulations regarding building standards and accessibility for disabled people.

"If we can fix it for a reasonable price, I think we do that," he said.

By the debate's end, after playing the defensive for most of the night, Kooiker used his final words to take his own stab at Kirkeby.

"We have two good candidates for this race," he said. "My opponent's a good man. He's a good legislator. We both have visions. I have laid out what my vision is during this debate tonight. He's laid out what his vision is: to oppose mine."

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